Ignoring the average voter’s voice? Mississippi redesign for initiative process in limbo

Published 5:33 pm Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Mississippi Senate leaders are not saying whether they will support a new initiative process that would allow voters to put proposed state laws — but nothing dealing with abortion — on the ballot.

Senators face a Thursday deadline. They could accept a House proposal to create a new process, which appears unlikely. They could seek final negotiations between the two Republican-controlled chambers. Or they could let the issue die during a year when most lawmakers are seeking reelection.

On Wednesday, Republican Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann and a key senator would not tell reporters whether they will keep the issue alive. Hosemann said he and other Senate leaders are making “good progress,” but he would not specify what that meant.

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Senate Accountability, Efficiency and Transparency Committee Chairman John Polk, a Republican from Hattiesburg, said he is talking to Hosemann and Senate colleagues about the House proposal.

“I’ve got a lot of thinking to do and reading and talking to people,” Polk said. “I’m not doing it in a vacuum.”

In May 2021, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled that the state’s previous initiative process, which had been in place since the 1990s, was outdated and invalid because it required initiative sponsors to gather an equal number of signatures from five old congressional districts. Mississippi went from five districts to four after the 2000 Census because of slow population growth, but legislators never updated the initiative process.

Since the court ruling, Mississippi residents have been unable to petition to put issues up for statewide votes.

Proposals being considered this year would require petition sponsors to gather an equal number of signatures from the four congressional districts.

In February, the Senate voted to require signatures from 12% of the state’s registered voters as of the last presidential election. That would be about 240,000 signatures.

In early March, the House voted to require the same number of signatures as the previous initiative process — at least 12% of the total votes in the most recent gubernatorial election. That would be about 106,000 signatures. Polk said Wednesday he is unwilling to accept that part of the House proposal.

The prohibition on abortion initiatives was added by the House, and Polk said Wednesday: “I don’t have a problem with that.”

The U.S. Supreme Court used a Mississippi case last June to upend abortion rights nationwide, and Mississippi now bans most abortions.

In 2011, Mississippi voters rejected a personhood initiative, which would have defined life as beginning at conception. That surprised many abortion rights opponents, including Republican Phil Bryant, who was elected governor the same day the initiative failed. Bryant had said days earlier that if voters were to reject the life-at-conception initiative, “Satan wins.”

Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s abortion ruling in June, voters in six states have either expanded or protected existing abortion rights through ballot initiatives. Kansas protected abortion rights in August, and five other states have either enshrined those rights or rejected constitutional restrictions on abortion.

The resolution to create a new Mississippi initiative process would allow proposed laws to go on the ballot. The previous process allowed initiatives to propose state constitutional amendments.

Once a constitutional amendment is approved, any attempt to revise or repeal it would need to go back on the statewide ballot for voters to consider. Changing a state law is simpler: That can be done by a majority vote in the Mississippi Legislature.